• Joumana Elomar

Imposter Syndrome: Who Am I to Make This Decision?

Have you ever felt like a fraud? Or doubted yourself and asked "Who am I to be making this decision?" Or thought to yourself "If only they knew who they were actually working with, I wouldn't be here..." If your answer is yes, you might have an inner imposter.

Imposter syndrome is a psychological pattern where we doubt our accomplishments. Despite significant evidence of our competence, we believe that we don't deserve our success. We might even attribute it to luck or think we've deceived everyone around us.

Feeling like an imposter can undermine our confidence, performance and motivation. In some cases, it can be a vicious cycle of self-doubt, anxiety and worry. All of these can impact decision-making. Yet, recent research suggests that there could be upsides to imposter syndrome.

The Cycle

Coined by Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes in the late 1970s, they defined the "Imposter Phenomenon" as self-perceived intellectual phoniness. Their research showed that many high-achieving women tended to believe they were not intelligent. But recent studies show that it affects both men and women.

According the Dr Clance, this is what the cycle looks like:

  1. We start a task or a project

  2. We feel anxious, worried and start to doubt ourselves

  3. We then either over-prepare or procrastinate

  4. When we achieve what we did, we feel relieved

  5. We receive positive feedback, and ignore it

  6. After we ignore it, we feel even more like a fraud

  7. And the cycle repeats!

When we overprepare and are met with success, we tend to pass it off as effort e.g. "If I can do it, anyone can!". Whereas, when we procrastinate and still pull it off we attribute it to luck e.g. "Honestly, it wasn't skill it was just luck!". This tendency to discount our skills, our talents, is what feeds the imposter. But not all imposters look alike.

5 Types of Imposters

According to imposter syndrome expert Dr. Valerie Young, there are five types of imposters:

  1. The Perfectionist: You set excessively high goals for yourself. If you fail to reach them, you might experience major self-doubt. You often feel like if you want something done right, you need to do it yourself. You believe that you shouldn't make any mistakes, and think that things should be completed a particular way.

  2. The Super(wo)man: You feel like you haven't earnt your title or your place. So you push yourself to work harder. You might work longer hours without telling anyone and tend to accept all projects that comes your way. You might sacrifice your hobbies to focus on work, and struggle during downtime.

  3. The Natural Genius: You're used to excelling without much effort. As a child, you were generally labelled the "smart one". Your internal bar for success is quite high, so when you face a small setback you feel a great sense of shame. You might avoid challenges because you're uncomfortable trying things that you don't excel in.

  4. The Soloist: You find yourself frequently saying that you can do it yourself. You might dislike working in a team, or relying on other people. You struggle to ask for help as you believe you should be able to learn it yourself. When you do ask for help, you frame requests around projects and not your own needs.

  5. The Expert: You feel like you don't know enough even though you have experience. You disagree when people call you an expert. You tend not to apply for jobs unless you meet all the requirements. You're always trying to learn more as you see success as being incredibly knowledgeable.

Looking at the list, it's no surprise that many of these behaviours can lead to burnout. They can also place serious stress on our mental health, as excessive self-doubt can eat away at our confidence, performance and motivation. To top it off, imposter syndrome thrives in silence. When we experience it, the last thing we want to do is tell anyone. So how do we tame it? Let's jump into it.

Practical Strategies

To tame your inner imposter, here are some practical tips:

  • Celebrate the little wins: When we own and celebrate achievements, it helps us avoid burnout and cultivates our self-confidence. The next time someone gives you positive feedback, don't brush it off with something like "Anyone could do it!" or "I got lucky". Just say thank you and really acknowledge it before you decide on next steps.

  • Practice asking for help: Realise there's no shame in asking for help. It doesn't make you lesser than anybody around you. In fact, chances are if you have a question that other people might have the same one too.

  • Build a growth mindset: Accept that making mistakes is a part of the learning process. If you're not making mistakes, it's likely that you're not pushing yourself out of your comfort zone or trying new things.

  • Use just-in-time learning: Learn things as you go and don't overload your plate with extra learning. Acquire skills when you need them to make your workload more manageable.

  • Focus on internal validation: Try not to rely on external validation, but move your focus on how you speak to yourself. It might feel strange to talk to yourself or say "You did get a great job", but research shows that self affirmations can activate systems associated with reward. This can decrease stress and improve performance too. Also, this means you're less likely to crave or want to rely on your boss, your clients or your teammates to validate you.

The Upsides

Recent studies show that there are some upsides to feeling like an imposter. According to organisational psychologist Adam Grant in his latest book 'Think Again', he shares that it can:

  • Motivate us to work harder and smarter

  • Motivate us to listen more carefully when others speak

  • Results in more careful decisions

  • Reminds us that we can learn from others

To support this, Dr Grant shares two examples from his former PHD students.

  1. In a dissertation paper by Dr Basima Tewfik, medical professionals were found to listen to their patients more carefully when they feel like an imposter. This was consistent in the investment industry where professionals made better decisions on average when they had imposter thoughts.

  2. In a dissertation paper by Dr Danielle Tussing, they studied leadership patterns in teams where nurses needed to share the role of "head nurse". They found that nurses who felt hesitant to take on this role were more effective leaders. They theorised that because they saw themselves as imposters, they asked for second opinions, and listened more deeply.

So recent research suggests that there are some positives to imposter syndrome.

Wrapping It Up

Imposter syndrome can cripple our confidence, performance and motivation. But it can also make us better leaders, workers and decision-makers. While not all imposters look alike, there are a handful of effective strategies we can use to tame our inner imposter.